Queer scientists in television science fiction

The Doctor and Captain Jack HarknessThe UK’s public broadcaster the BBC has this month commissioned a study into representations of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) people in its fiction and non-fiction programs (BBC News, 2010).

Of particular interest to science communicators is representations of scientists in fiction, and this study seems a timely prompt to ask: are there any queer scientist characters on telly?

The BBC study comes at a time when LGB characters in television fiction are relatively commonplace, at least compared to what the world was like twenty years ago. Back then queer folk like myself were reduced to watching the same few films time and again to see an LGB character on screen, and even then most of the time they ended up being killed or turning straight.

Still, it’s not as though LGB characters are everywhere on the screen as much as LGB people are everywhere in the real world, and scientist characters may be particularly unlikely to be characterised as queer. Experiments asking kids to draw pictures of scientists have shown time and again that one particular stereotype of scientists — that of an Einstein-like, nutty professor-style, older white man with wild hair and glasses and bubbling concoctions — has a powerful presence in the cultural imagination. This has been problematised, for example by scholars who see this male image as an obstacle to women’s equal participation in the science workplace because it can block girls and women from seeing themselves as scientists (Steinke, 2005). It takes effort to shift an image that is so deeply ingrained, but some institutions have devoted themselves to doing exactly that: promoting more widespread representations of female scientists in fiction in order to encourage women to pursue careers in the sciences (e.g. EuroPAWS, 2007; Haran et al., 2008).

We might extend the argument to representations of LGB people. Can we imagine a camp gay man working in the area of nuclear physics? A butch lesbian doing the same? Perhaps we can imagine it but it is not the image of a scientist that springs to mind. High school and undergraduate science courses can be alienating and even violent environments for LGB people to be in for a number of reasons (Fifield and Swain, 2002; Toynton, 2007), including the fact that orthodox Western science views homosexuality and gender-transgression as aberrations to be ‘explained’ (Bagemihl, 1999; Brookey, 2001; Hird, 2004; Miller, 1995). This alone no doubt acts as a filter, excluding many LGB, transgendered and intersex people from working in the sciences despite the fact that many distinguished scientists have been queer. Masculinist environments in science and engineering have been shown to exclude women from those disciplines through multiple sexist practices from cumulative ‘micro-inequities’ to routine sexual harassment (Bell, 2009; WISET, 1995), and there is no reason to think that heterosexist environments would be any more comfortable for queer people.

What does one do then as a young queer thing, when it comes to careers in science? Solving this problem will require considerable thought and work that we have barely begun. But if equitable representations for women in fiction is one avenue for redressing sexism in real life, then increasing the presence of queer scientist characters in fiction must be a step in the right direction too. So what role models does television provide that make it not only acceptable for LGB people to be working as scientists, but so ‘normal’ that it changes the cultural image of ‘scientist’ in our minds? Most pertinently to the prompt for this post, what role models does BBC television grant us?

Recent BBC science fiction television programs have featured a relatively high presence of queer characters who are scientists. Torchwood (2006-present) is the most obvious example: it features numerous characters of ambiguous sexual identity who are specialists in different areas of science and who engage in sexual relationships with people of the same sex. The central character, Captain Jack Harkness, has been hailed as television’s first bisexual male hero (Hunter, 2007), and his grasp of science and technology is both extensive and intuitive because he is a human from Earth’s future (see my paper Orthia, 2010, for a discussion of the racial politics of this concept of the future). The scientists in Torchwood are ‘cool geeks’: they have clever banter, wear funky clothes, work in dimly lit exciting workplaces full of technology, and are clever at what they do, as well as having lots of sex. Notably, none of them are camp gay men or butch lesbians: their appearance is very gender-mainstream, all butch men and girly women. This is relatively common in television, for example lesbian computer geek Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) was also gender normative, as were her sexual partners, and bisexual physician Dr Anya Raczynski from the BBC’s recent remake of its 1970s program Survivors (2008-present) is also ultra feminine, complete with the long fingernails that are a dead giveaway of a fake lesbian with no consideration for her partner’s sexual health and safety.

While important for baseline visibility, these characters do not reflect the diversity of gender-identities of LGB people, let alone the diversity of transgendered and intersex folk. In that sense, they remain fictional fabrications of real life rather than a reflection of it, and their usefulness as role models for queer folk in the science workplace remains uncertain. Still, the same can be said of the diversity of all people: most of us who are ugly, fat, old, sick or disabled do not see ourselves on screen except in news stories about diabetes, so to some extent it is a global problem with the medium. That global problem may contribute to the exclusion of LGB people from science work though, since it constrains notions of acceptable diversity in to very limited parameters. The normative gender model it reinforces — that men are men and women are women and never the twain shall meet — is intrinsically linked to normative sexuality models in scientific fields such as sociobiology and its rebranded child evolutionary psychology which privilege sexual reproduction as a motivating force for all behaviours (see Cassidy, 2007). It is precisely this foundational scientific assumption that leads scientists to ask questions about the cause of homosexuality, when heterosexuality needs no explanation (Miller, 1995). But the assumption itself is highly questionable (Bagemihl, 1999; Hird, 2004; Orthia, 2006), and is indeed important to question considering the impact the assumption has on young queer science students who are trying to engage positively with science while being told they are evolutionary misfits. That was certainly my own experience as an undergraduate science student.

Torchwood, however, is a mere spin-off of the jewel in the BBC’s science fiction crown, the longest-running television science fiction series in the world, Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-present). Captain Jack made his first television appearance in the first season of Doctor Who‘s new series, in which he famously kissed lead character the Doctor in a first for Doctor Who, having spent several episodes mutually flirting with him (pictured above). This one same sex involvement established the Doctor as a canonically ‘queer’ character, while in the original series his sexuality remained a source of subtext-driven speculation (see Nyder, 2006). The Doctor has not been sexually involved with any men since the kiss with Jack; indeed in the 2007 episode The Sound of Drums Jack implied that his love for the Doctor was not reciprocated. Even an offer from William Shakespeare was met with a dry intellectual remark by the Doctor rather than an enthusiastic wa-hey!. The Doctor has, however, kissed numerous women since Jack, including all his female companions, and so although his sexual identity is unclear, his behaviour has been thus far almost entirely straight.

The Doctor’s sexuality matters in this context because he is a scientist; indeed in his 1970s incarnations he was cast as the ultimate defender of Enlightenment scientism (Orthia, in press). Margaret Wertheim and a consortium of British scientists have suggested that a woman be cast in the role of the Doctor to promote women’s participation in science (Cook, 2006; The Telegraph, 2008), so again, should the Doctor be gay or bisexual, this would surely strike a blow for queer visibility in science. The original series of Doctor Who garnered a noticeable number of LGB fans (Tulloch and Jenkins, 1995), perhaps because of the Doctor’s surface-level asexuality and ethos of liberal tolerance. Doctor Who has also recruited young people to the sciences (“Sci-Fi Science: The True Science Behind Science Fiction”, n.d.). Whether some of these LGB fans and recruited scientists are the same people is unclear, but if Doctor Who were to lose its queer-positive-meets-science-positive orientation because of the overtly heterosexual behaviour of the Doctor it would be a shame.

Having said that, representations of queer scientists in the original series were not usually ‘positive’ in the sense of showing queer characters performing effective science for the benefit of humanity. Unlike in the new series, which has featured several overtly queer characters (none scientists), queerness was entirely subtextual in the original series, so we must go hunting for it. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t there though (see for example Darlington, 2007). Nor does it mean that people didn’t ‘see’ it even if its presence wasn’t intentional. In discussing queer subtexts of horror films, Harry Benshoff (1997) has noted that queer viewers may respond to fictional characters differently from straight viewers, and he also demonstrates the ways in which discourses of queerness have been used to frame moral tales in horror films even when no explicitly queer characters are present.

The same argument can be made for original series Doctor Who, which features a handful of gender non-conforming scientists, some implicitly queer, who for the most part cannot perform effective science. Gender non-conformity manifests in different ways: for example the Drahvins in the 1965 serial Galaxy 4 are a predominantly female, genetically engineered race of beings which has dispensed with men almost entirely because they “have no function”; the Dulcians (both female and male) in 1968’s The Dominators literally wear frilly, girly frocks and so have an outward appearance of effete effeminacy; botanist Harrison Chase in The Seeds of Doom (1976) is so camp he has been described as “Mr Humphries with psychotic tendencies” (Nyder, 2006). Ineffectual science manifests in different ways too: the Drahvins’ spaceship is made from poor quality metal and when it crashes they cannot repair it; the Dulcians’ scientists are uninquiring and dull, refusing to countenance deeper explanations for phenomena and engaging only with surface trivialities; while Chase is literally mad, believing plants are superior to animals and thus demonstrating a commitment to marginal rather than orthodox science (e.g. that of Tompkins and Bird 1974) (Orthia, in press). This association between gender non-conformity and poor science in all cases signifies a deep-seated ideological ‘problem’ at the base of the fictional societies that display these traits: the Drahvins lack human compassion, the Dulcians are dogmatic pacifists and Chase has a ‘backward’ sense of morality that privileges plants over humans. All are found wanting in their beliefs. The ultimate moral message of these serials and others like them is that gender non-conformity or implied queerness is a symptom of societal corruption or, dare I say it, degeneracy, and that it is thus incompatible with the individualist, masculinist muscularity of Enlightenment science.

This does not mean that queer viewers have to hate ourselves on screen, because as Benshoff argues, people who watch film or television from outside of the dominant cultural framework may well identify with villains more than with heroes. My own experience of watching Harrison Chase is one of absolute identification — I want the Doctor to lose and Chase’s plant monster to win. But in part my identification stems from a partiality to marginal science, as much as from an identification with Chase’s queer status. So the question remains unanswered: what is the meaning of Chase for queer viewers who wish to subscribe to orthodox scientific philosophy? And perhaps just as importantly, what is his meaning for straight viewers dealing with LGB colleagues in the science workplace? In essence, is he a positive role model or a negative one?

There are apparent contradictions to this pattern in Doctor Who, most obviously Professor Emilia Rumford from 1978’s The Stones of Blood. Rumford is an elderly archaeologist who exhibits much scientific intelligence, a nutty professor-like fixation on academic disputes, and a heroic capacity to apply skills in physics and engineering effectively in the field. She is also marked by her own brand of gender non-conformity, carrying many implicitly lesbian traits (Nyder, 2006). Most obviously, she is rather butch in clothing and hairstyle, and has an unusually close domestic relationship with a woman who is linked in dialogue to famous British lesbian Violet Trefusis. Rumford’s credible science in the face of this challenge to heteronormativity suggests that it is not gender-bending itself that Doctor Who casts as problematic for science, but only that which challenges masculinist individualism. Rumford’s conformity to scientific, individualist and perhaps even masculinist norms — and, critically, her lack of material power over men and willingness to obey the male Doctor’s instructions — allows her to maintain scientific credibility when other queers must surrender it. In other words, we are allowed to be queer scientists if we adopt the beliefs of the dominant culture.

Perhaps, then, to envision a scientific future in which LGB peoples are at the lab bench determining the ideological framework of science, rather than under the microscope as the aberrant subjects of scientific scrutiny, we must direct our attention away from BBC science fiction and towards that eternal recourse of the disenfranchised — comedy.

Parts of this post are drawn from Lindy Orthia’s research into representations of science in Doctor Who. She will be discussing such matters and more later in 2010 in her new undergraduate course Science in Popular Fiction.


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